“I’m very dark,” Amy Ewing would say, and you kind of both agree and disagree. Amy punctuates every thought with either a smile or laughter. When we met, the US election results were coming in and while she never concealed her frustration, she quickly set the topic aside because we were supposed to discuss her books, not politics.
She is dark, yes, in a way that her stories have gloomy themes and her characters navigate frightful spaces. But during our short conversation, all I saw was color. Literally, at first. You can’t miss Amy in a crowd, that is, it’s hard to miss anyone with purple hair. “I had a really bad month two years ago, and I came out of it feeling like I survived it and needed to make a change,” she explained when I asked what’s the deal with it. She also has tattoos with bittersweet tales behind them, one of which involving the death of a dear friend.
Needless to say, Amy is no stranger to tragedy. In 2008 she was laid off. With so much time in her hands, she had to figure out what she wanted. “I was working as a sales rep. I was terrible at it. It was probably one of the reasons why I got laid off,” she said, again laughing in the end. Amy went to NYU to study acting and had always wanted to be an actor, but she also loved reading fantasy and writing privately. Knowing all these, a friend suggested that she give YA fiction a try.
“And I did,” continued Amy. “The thing about writing is you can do it on your own and no one is responsible for it but you — which is awesome and terrifying. I don’t think I’ve ever pushed myself until I started writing. I realized, ‘Oh you were just really scared.’”
Here she is generously — even happily — talking about her fears and failures, and why they matter.
GIST: Tell us about your first attempt at writing a story and the moment you decided, ‘I’m a writer.’
AMY EWING: When I wrote my first book — which will never see the light of day — there was something about finishing it that made me feel, ‘Wow this is crazy.’ It was a very traditional fantasy — very Tolkien and CS Lewis — about a girl that got sucked into this other world, a female-dominated society, which I’m passionate about. I went to graduate school to improve it — it’s still terrible — and then I failed. So I saw myself at a crossroads: Am I going to be okay with the thought that this isn’t for me because I failed one time or am I going to pick myself up and write another book? I picked myself up and wrote another book. And that was The Jewel. To turn The Jewel from nothing into a book in five months, I was like, ‘Oh I love this. I don’t ever want to not do this.’
How was The Jewel’s storyline born?
The idea came from the movie Taken with Liam Neeson. There is that scene where the daughter who was kidnapped was paraded on the stage and bid on by all these guys to serve as a sex slave. I thought, instead of men buying women, what if it was women? And why would a woman buy another woman? Then Violet’s world came into existence for me. That was the first scene I envisioned, the auction scene.
After finishing The Jewel series, what was your biggest discovery about the craft?
Embracing failure. Your first drafts are terrible. All drafts that anyone has ever written are terrible. Once I let go of the idea that I had to present something that was near perfection, I felt freer to experiment and not care about every single word; because it’s going to change anyway. And that means I can get things out there. By embracing the failure of the first draft, I give myself permission to try different things, which is liberating.
Your advice to aspiring writers?
I have two pieces of advice. First is don’t give up, which seems very easy to say and hard to do. You will experience rejection. You have to get used to that. Another thing is finish what you start. Twenty-five percent into a draft, you will feel, ‘This is so bad I don’t know where to go with it.’ Write through it. Just put the words down — one word and then another and then another. I give myself word count goals: ‘I’ll just write 200 more words.’ And that seems slightly more manageable. When you finish something, you can look back and go, ‘Okay what is this book about and how can I fix all these words and improve the story?’ You can’t see what the story’s about until you get to the end of it.
It’s one thing to finish a novel and another to get published. What should aspiring writers expect when it comes to that part of the game?
It’s so hard and I think there are so many different paths. I tried with one book, and I failed. I was lucky enough with my second book. It got me an agent and a publisher. But a lot of times you have to write three, four, five books before getting published. There’s so much work and rejection involved.
What will your new series be about?
The next series is about a city in the sky made up of a race of magical alien women. They’re all female and gay, and the family unit consists of three mothers and one daughter. The city is attached by a tether to a planet and in order to break that tether and move to a new planet they have to sacrifice one of their own. This young, teenage girl is chosen to be sacrificed, but it goes wrong. Instead of breaking the tether and dying, she lands on a planet and is kidnapped by twins, a boy and a girl, whose father owns a series of high-end freak shows in what’s essentially 1930s New York. So she’s put into a freak show and has to figure out how to escape and hopefully get back home.
Why is YA so popular? Why do you love it?
Everyone has been a teenager, every adult was once a teenager. Everyone knows how it feels to straddle the world between being a child and an adult, how it is to feel things for the first time: challenging authority, love, relationships, losing friendships. There’s so much there to explore. And I think YA always, at the very least, has a thin line of hope in it.
What else do you want to see in the genre?
Obviously there’s a huge discussion about diversity and diversity in publishing in general at every single level — writer, publishers, editors, and books themselves; because so many voices are not being heard. It’s happening but it’s happening very slowly. That’s why I like writing female-dominated societies, because I grew up loving Tolkien as a teenager but there were barely any girls in the books. You want to write what you wish were there.
Do you feel a responsibility to make a point or send a message through your work?
I don’t really ever go into it thinking, ‘I’m going to say this.’ Usually the idea, the characters, and the setting come first and then it’s like — with The Jewel — ‘Oh you’re writing about how important it is to have ownership of your own body. That’s a really important to you.’ That comes automatically in the book.
Who are your literary heroes?
Tolkien is my heart and soul. But one of my favorite authors is Roald Dahl. I’m a huge re-reader of books. The BFG is one of my favorite books and it’s the first book that I’ve ever read multiple times. It was the book which opened up in me this feeling of enjoyment in waiting for that moment or the sentences that I love — waiting for the comfort in certain scenes. And he’s so dark and fantastical. He influenced me more than I probably realized.
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